Family from Ghana > to Illinois > to Marquette fuel this fireball.
by Chris Jenkins
At 5-foot-7, men’s soccer standout James C. Nortey is several inches shy of the ideal size for his position.
As a center forward, Nortey is expected to be his team’s main scoring threat, searching for a sliver of space as bigger defenders try to muscle him out of the way.
“The people that you’re playing against are all, like, huge,” Nortey says. “You have to work your way around them to create chances for yourself, to create chances for your team.”
But there’s something more you should know about Nortey. He has spent most of his life creating his own chances. He grew up in Accra, Ghana, and as a young boy sold tomatoes and sports drinks on the roadside to help his family make ends meet. He earned a ticket to the United States by refusing to take no for an answer as an 11-year-old, formed new bonds as he adjusted to life in an unfamiliar country, then made the transition from an East Coast boarding school to college in Milwaukee.
Growing up fast
Nortey, a redshirt sophomore, showed his determination at age 11 when he was selected to try out at the Right to Dream Academy, an organization in Ghana that provides education and training for promising young soccer players. Nortey didn’t make the final selection of players chosen to stay with the academy, but a few of his friends did. He decided to tag along with them.
“It sounds like I’m very determined, but every person in Ghana that was my age at the time would have done the same thing,” he says.
And then something really unexpected happened. The academy needed another goalkeeper, the position Nortey played at the time. He talked them into letting him fill the gap.
“I helped in the kitchen, I helped serve the food, I helped with everything I could,” Nortey says. “And eventually, they realized I could be useful — and then I started playing really well.”
Top players at the academy are put on track toward professional careers in soccer. Those who play well and also show academic potential, such as Nortey, have an opportunity to go to school in the United States or United Kingdom. Nortey recalls the moment he was called into a meeting with academy founder Tom Vernon — usually a sign that a student is in trouble.
“I was shaking,” Nortey remembers. “Everybody was concerned for me. And, then, he said, ‘You’re going to America in six months.’”
At age 15, Nortey flew for the first time — “like paradise,” he says of the experience, although surprisingly bumpy — destined for the Hotchkiss School, a boarding school in Connecticut. He thought the school looked like the castle from the Harry Potter movies and figured the rest of the United States probably looked similar.
In Connecticut, Nortey’s challenges continued. He struggled at first with learning English. But a language barrier didn’t stop he and fellow student Jack Dickinson from growing close. Jack took Nortey home to visit his family in the Chicago area during Thanksgiving break — and, eventually, most every other school break after that.
“For some reason, he thought everything I said was funny,” Nortey says of Jack. “And I thought everything he said was funny. We became really close.”
It didn’t take long for Nortey to bond with the entire family, including Jack’s parents, Dan and Gina; sisters Grace and Jane and younger brother Paul.
Dan and Gina Dickinson take pride in Nortey’s success on the field. Since they live in the Chicago suburbs, they’re able to attend most Marquette home games. But what happens in the classroom, Dan says, is more important.
“I give C credit,” Dan says. “He realizes that his primary goal and focus here is a college degree. He may be able to play soccer beyond college. Who knows? But, regardless, he’s going to go on for the rest of his life with a great college degree and that will really serve him well.”
In time, Nortey came to think of the Dickinsons as a second family. They hung a stocking with his name on it at Christmas.
“That was the moment that said to me, ‘You’re part of our family now,’” Nortey says.
Substitute the Midwest for Mississippi and swap one kind of football for another and, Nortey says, this story sounds familiar even to him.
“What is the movie called … The Blind Side?” he says. “I watched the movie and said, ‘This is like me.’”
When it came time to choose a college, Nortey felt comfortable at Marquette with Head Men’s Coach Louis Bennett, whose British accent reminded him of the coaches at the academy in Ghana.
Bennett is a fan on and off the field and says Nortey’s life experience is even more valuable to the program than his talent.
“Marquette is all about giving the best of experiences to everyone and looking for that leadership and that community and that whole faith — just believing in things bigger than yourself,” Bennett says. “And he exemplifies that without even knowing. It’s just his life.”
Fighting back to play
This year brought a new challenge. Following his stellar freshman year, Nortey sat out the 2012–13 season after having surgery on both knees. Although his knees began bothering him when he was 15, a diagnosis then determined the pain was a result of bone bruising. When he got to Marquette, and the symptoms didn’t diminish, the Golden Eagles’ team doctor realized Nortey needed operations on both knees. After that came grueling rehabilitation sessions that lasted up to four hours per day and went on for weeks.
Marquette teammate Paul Dillon, a senior defender whose locker is next to Nortey’s, says Nortey is naturally quiet and only occasionally opens up about his life experiences.
“He has a lot of pride in where he comes from, but he doesn’t boast about it,” Dillon says. “He doesn’t want sympathy. He just wants to live his life like a regular kid.”
Dillon sat with Nortey for about an hour after Nortey’s first knee surgery. Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Dillon says Nortey was in an upbeat, joking mood.
“It’s almost like those are the times when you see what a person really is like,” Dillon says. “Having knee surgery, it was the first of two, yet he was still so positive about the entire experience and he had the ability to smile regardless of the fact that he knew the journey was going to be so long.”
Nortey traces his knee troubles to the wear and tear of playing on rock-hard surfaces growing up.
“Playing in Ghana is like playing on cement,” he says. “Everything is really hard, and I played a lot with my bare feet. You wear out your knees when you play like that for a long time.
“The rehab process was really, really hard,” he admits. “But because everybody was determined to make me come back, I was that determined.”
Now he’s back, and perhaps better, playing a critical role for a team that could make some noise in the NCAA tournament. Nortey scored a team-leading five goals in the Golden Eagles’ first 10 games — including a dramatic 95th-minute match-winner at Villanova on October 5.
“He’s one of the best players in the country,” Bennett says. “And this is the thing: He’s one of the hardest people to play against. I mean, he’s a 5-foot-7 fireball, you know?”
Bennett isn’t surprised that Nortey has emerged from his surgeries and rehabilitation as perhaps an even better player than before. Bennett says Nortey’s background, coming from a place “where opportunities have to be taken with both hands,” gives him a different perspective on life.
“Finding positive things out of what could be an extremely negative thing is a strength, a character trait, that we all wish we had,” Bennett says. “He didn’t know this was going to happen, but it did. So rather than going, ‘Poor me, it happened to me and I’ve had a hard life,’ it’s like, ‘OK, where do I sign up for recovery?’ And in doing that, what a great example to everyone.”
What you should know about James C. Nortey
• Grew up in Accra, Ghana.
• Came to the United States at age 15.
• Graduated from the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut with another familiar face — men’s basketball player Derrick Wilson.
• Was a three-time all-state and all-region selection while at Hotchkiss.
• Hold’s the title of Marquette’s active career leader in goals and second in career points.